Photo Credit: Birds on a Wire by user Kiwi Flickr

Diversity in Networks

Image by DonkeyHotey, used under Creative Commons licensing. Image by DonkeyHotey, used under Creative Commons licensing.

Reposted from the Connecting to Change the World blog with permission. Networks are a natural way of bringing together like-minded people and excluding others. People tend to connect with each other because of their similarities, not their differences. And as their bonds strengthen, they construct a shared identity based on their similarities. This “social capital” can become a screen/barrier for membership in the network. When people outside of the network are told they can’t participate, they may feel the network is more like a “good old boys” club, elitist, lacking in diversity, even discriminatory. Bonding without diversity is a larger social phenomenon, whether the shared identity is race- or ethnicity-based, economic, occupational, geographical. Thomas Edsall, in a recent column in The New York Times, noted that as the political has become more personal in the U.S., partisan political identification has intensified as a source of bonding between and separation of people.
  • In 2010, 49 percent of Republicans said they would be “somewhat or very unhappy” if their children married someone of the opposing party, while 33 percent of Democrats said the same. These percentages were nearly 10 times greater than 50 years earlier.
  • From 1960 to 2010, the percentage of Democrats and Republicans who said that members of their own party were more intelligent than those in the opposition party grew from 6 percent to 48 percent; the percentage describing members of the opposition party as “selfish” rose from 21 percent to 47 percent.
Edsall quoted political scientist Shanto Iyengar’s on the causes of this increased  polarization: “Residential neighborhoods are politically homogeneous as are social media networks. I suspect this is one of the principal reasons for the significantly increased rate of same-party marriages. In 1965, a national survey of married couples showed around sixty-five percent agreement among couples. By 2010, the agreement rate was near 90 percent.” Note the “social media networks.” Even in wide open Internet-based systems–anyone can come in–the Similars Dynamic is at work. All of this tells us that diversity is not necessarily a natural characteristic of networks. If you want your network’s membership to be diverse, you have to be quite intentional about it. You can want diversity because it’s a basic value that you hold. And/or you can want it because it’s helpful to the network’s functionality. It’s often noted, for instance, that a diversity of points of view and ideas is good for efforts to innovate. And when a network’s diversity reflects the diversity in the broader world in which the network acts, that can ensure the network is not missing important perspectives. But working in a very diverse network usually requires more effort at connecting and aligning members than working in a network of similars.  I talked recently with a network builder who recently shifted from working in a network of similar professionals in land management to building a network of groups of different people in 18 different communities across the U.S. “There are 12-15 individuals in each place, so you have to understand each of them. And you have to understand the different local contexts of the communities.” With this much diversity in the network, helping the members understand and value each other’s perspectives, connect deeply with each other, align around shared ideas, values, goals, and approaches–all of this fundamental work will take time, effort, and patience on everyone’s part. You could say the same about the broader society and its growing lack of partisan diversity.  Except, as most political commentators note, politicians tend to exploit the tendency to like-minded separation, rather than weaving across differences.